IIRA at WIU Provides Real-World Work Opportunities for Political Science Grad Student
October 26, 2012
MACOMB, IL — Amanda Davis' work for the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs (IIRA) at Western Illinois University has not only provided the political science graduate student with a great incentive to complete her practicum requirement in her academic program, but she also thinks the hands-on projects she's had the opportunity to experience will make her a stand out among graduates searching for work.
"The opportunities have greatly enhanced my educational accomplishments and will prove invaluable as I transition from student to the work force," she said.
Davis attributes the pursuit of her success, in part, to her supervisor, Lori Sutton, the program manager for the IIRA's Data Analysis and Technical Assistance (DATA) Center.
"The only reason I am in grad school now—and in turn, will eventually pursue a doctorate degree—is because my supervisor, Lori, is incredibly encouraging. In fact, it was her idea, and she encouraged me to apply for a graduate assistantship, which made grad school possible. I wouldn't and couldn't have done it without Lori," she said.
According to Davis, the IIRA came very highly recommended by a friend who had an opportunity to complete her required social work volunteer hours through the Institute.
"I've been very fortunate to have been assigned to several IIRA units during my employment here, which has greatly broadened my work scope experience. My opportunities have included survey and census data projects, requiring that I complete many facets of the survey process," she explained.
While working on the Renewable Energy Student Survey for the Value-Added Sustainable Development Center, Davis created the survey instrument, compiled the results and wrote the final report. And according to the IIRA's Wind Energy Program Coordinator Jolene Willis, Davis personally contacted county officials and reviewed ordinance information with them or requested it; organized data and research; and dealt directly with the Institutional Review Board at WIU and navigated its ethics process.
"It's all real-world job experience, and if Amanda hadn't been completing those tasks, I would have been doing that work myself," Willis said.
"Although the wind energy projects were a departure from the social service experience I have had, it was extremely valuable," Davis explained. "Every Illinois county with a wind ordinance was examined for setbacks and other standards, and I created a matrix of wind ordinances for the entire state. I had the opportunity to travel throughout the state to interview municipalities and schools using wind power. It was phenomenal. I discussed with members of various communities the process of integrating wind into their energy portfolios and all the challenges and benefits of doing so. I also had the opportunity to tour the interior of a wind turbine, which I would never have imagined I would do."
When conducting a survey for the Data Center, Davis participated in collecting data for a "Point-in-Time Homeless Count" study, which required her to travel from midnight to 4 a.m. during the last week of January 2011 to areas frequented by unsheltered homeless people. She used the experience for an exit research paper for her political science degree program requirements. She said the opportunity also resonated with her on a personal level.
"Only when this most basic understanding of the homeless population is achieved can public administrators be expected to respect the humanity of the homeless in their communities. I will participate in the count process again this January, since it is scheduled to occur every two years," she said.
To participate in an additional opportunity to do survey-related work Davis also volunteered to compile a survey for Pittsfield (IL).
As part of her social work practicum, Davis was also invited to observe four MAPPING the Future of Your Community planning sessions. (MAPPING the Future of Your Community is another IIRA program/unit; see www.iira.org/outreach/mapping/)
"Observing the MAPPING sessions allowed me to see the macro-focused efforts of community development, and I used some of the information from those sessions to complete a public budgeting final project on downtown revitalization," she explained. "I am also currently working for the Rural Economic Technical Assistance Center (RETAC), another IIRA program. During the few weeks I have worked for this program, I have already researched a variety of topics, including techniques used by small towns to remediate dilapidated buildings; methods of advertising used in small communities; the economic impact of community foundations; and retail success in rural areas."
Davis said the opportunity to work with the faculty and staff at the IIRA has increased her professionalism.
"Because everyone at the IIRA has been so approachable and kind, I have learned not to be intimidated by people who I admire. I have also learned to be aggressive in getting data and information and that the details of a project make all the difference between a professional and an amateur effort," she said. "Having a pristine end product is far more important to me now than the sometimes-painful editing process. To have been given the opportunity to be a part of such a well-respected organization is useful beyond all measure, and I feel I can fit into any work environment now—I feel I'm ready to hit the ground running."
Davis noted her professional interests vary.
"If I could get paid to do something I love, I would do survey research either for a private agency or in Springfield. Alternatively, I am interested in doing macro-social work, which usually takes the form of research, for a state agency like the Department of Human Rights, Department on Aging or Housing Development Authority," she said. "When I have earned my Ph.D., I hope to return to teach for WIU and to give back to the university and community that have given so much to me. Working for the IIRA has definitely helped me to identify the type of work I most enjoy."
According to Davis, she came to Western in January 2005 to pursue a bachelor's degree in women's studies because, at that time, it was the only state school in Illinois that offered a women's studies program.
Davis graduated in December 2006 and then returned to Western in 2010 to pursue a second bachelor's degree in social work (BSW). After she earned her BSW in 2011, she enrolled in the political science graduate program, focusing on public administration and public policy.
A native of Alsip (IL), Davis lives with her husband in Colchester (IL). She expects to complete her master's degree at Western this December.
For more information, contact Davis at (309) 333-3439. Learn more about the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs and its various programs/units at www.iira.org.